Smart people can be religious too, can’t they?

Being charitable to the positions, beliefs, and arguments of others is a hallmark of thorough thinking, and it is a good marker to determine the quality of online content. Blogs and comments are often dominated by clear but one-sided opinions on a particular subject, which allows them to gain a quick following by confirming the opinions of their own group. If one’s goal is to start and maintain a community of like-minded people for the benefits a feeling of belonging provides, this is effective. Usually, however, such blogs are constructed as if intending to speak to those on the other side of the fence, in which case their manner of argument is poor and ineffective, because, in the language of Stephen Covey, they seek first to be understood before they understand.

I cringe at these types of arguments, regardless of what side of the fence they land, because they pretend to be something they are not. Being charitable doesn’t mean not making claims of value or judgement; it simply means a considered investigation of the side you are arguing against, putting it in the best possible light. Unfortunately, academic training seems to make one prone to the opposite problem, being so charitable that one is doing little other than summarizing the state of affairs. This may be helpful if the greater public is unaware of a factor that may change the nature of a discourse, and often it functions as a plea for moderation against the more one-sided folks. Only rarely, at least in my field, do scholars make challenging claims. It’s simply the way we were raised.

I would like to think that people who study religion have to be more charitable than most, because they are often dealing with the impact of beliefs and actions that are self-founding; in other words, they cannot be verified or justified by outside reasoning. I have come to wonder, though, whether touting the pluralism of religious scholarship is not simply bad faith. Perhaps scholars use arguments against bias to avoid upsetting their audience, or even more critically, to avoid upsetting themselves. I know this was true in my case. I survived as a Christian for at least two years only by maintaining a separation between my religious life and my academic life, even though the latter deals almost exclusively with the religion I practiced. It eventually became an untenable separation for me, the exact reasons for which remain a mystery, especially as many others are able to operate in both worlds, the religious and the academic.

Indeed, I have had numerous conversations with friends who are believers about the fact that there are many intelligent people, many intelligent scholars even, who hold very strong religious beliefs. It may seem silly even to have that conversation, but the nature of the majority of the discourse, in which atheists think Christians are stupid, or at least Christians think atheists think they are stupid, and Christians think atheists are all the devil’s servants destined for hell, or at least atheists think Christians think they are, makes it a practically inevitable conversation. In addition, because I quit religion while in higher education, friends often assume I think that my current position is the “smarter” one.

Many different names come up in the conversation about smart Christians, with C. S. Lewis always high on the list. I’ll return to him another time, but I came across another brief argument by a Christian academic that reinforces my contention that one cannot justify religious belief from a non-theological scholarly methodology. Gary Cutting, a philosopher from Notre Dame, wrote an opinion piece “On Being Catholic” in the New York Times, where he says, “I try to articulate a position that I expect many fellow Catholics will find congenial and that non-Catholics (even those who reject all religion) may recognize as an intellectually respectable stance.” What follows is part personal testimony and part justification of a liberal approach to an orthodox tradition.

Cutting argues, as liberal Christians often do, that while the church may not provide fundamental truths, it is a helpful tool for understanding the human condition. While he doesn’t go into detail here, the “tools” that other Christians cite are primarily explanatory ones, such as man having a sinful nature, which then explains why people do bad things, reinforcing the idea that if there were only more Christians, there would be less evil in the world. Cutting also aligns with other liberal Christians in highlighting the ethic of love as a “powerful force for good” and the lens through which Biblical teachings should be interpreted. He anticipates the counterargument that he is promoting a watered-down version of the faith by contending that the Catholicism itself makes room for such diversity of belief.

None of this is a clear justification of his belief as a Catholic or a reconciliation with his life as an academic. In the end, he offers two reasons why not to abandon the flawed institution of the Catholic Church. First, the Catholic tradition is, as he says, “the only place I feel at home. Simply to renounce it would be…to deny part of my moral core.” This is where the heart of Cutting’s argument lies. He can’t give up religion because it would be giving up part of himself. I understand his argument and have felt that way myself, but it is not the intellectually respectable stance he claimed it would be. It is rather a conversation-stopper, an argument that maintains a foundational ground without question out of (a very real) fear.

By holding both that the church is flawed and yet that its ideals are right or that its heart is in the right place, Cutting keeps those flaws at a distance from himself. Yet he is left with two choices. One would be to articulate more clearly what are those beliefs that constitute his moral core and why exactly they are best served in Christianity. If simply because that is the tradition he grew up in, fine, but that is not the reasonable argument he is making. The other option would be to seriously question whether the flaws in the Church are also deeply embedded in his moral core as well. The change in my life, from a place where I felt like Cutting to where I am now, was facilitated by the realization that my moral worldview was not, in practice, supported by the theological underpinnings I had been told it was. It was then that I realized my moral core was tied more to the particularities of my social world—which did include Christianity— and my dispositions rather than a divine Creator.

Cutting’s second reason not to abandon his belief is contingent upon the first. He doesn’t want to abandon his faith to the conservatives. Again, I recognize the position, and it is one I held for a period of time. The lines are not as clear here. I am not willing to say, as many nonreligious folks do, that all religion does more harm than good. So I understand the sentiment of wanting to reclaim a rich tradition from seeming perversions. But it could also be that the unwillingness of “liberal” religious folks to abandon their tradition helps maintain the space that allows conservative and extreme factions to enact their violence against others who think differently. Think for a moment what would happen if all liberal Christians abandoned their Christianity for another system that was centered around love and morality, but without the theological underpinnings? I know it’s far-fetched, but where would that leave conservative factions? Without enough support to survive.

Though Cutting claims Christianity is not the only way to truth, I don’t see him taking the route I suggested. But that means that he and others like him, have a lot more work to do than making generalizations about “love” and “my belief,” which excludes nearly all of what religious traditions have historically been about. His argument is not justifiable in the manner he proposed it in. Rather, it is evasive precisely where it needs to be specific. It takes for granted both the theological propositions and the social conditions required for him to profess such a faith. I don’t think it is necessarily impossible to make a reasoned argument that takes these factors into serious account, but I have yet to see one.

5 thoughts on “Smart people can be religious too, can’t they?

  1. I think you’ve written a fair piece. I found grad school strengthened my faith. My faith and your faith are/were different, obviously. My faith was never based on well-intentioned rational arguments: I believe (or, at my worst, aspire to believe) because I feel that I have experienced divine experiences and witnessed similar events in the lives of my loved ones and close friends. Therefore my faith is very much an experience-based one. In grad school I witnessed lower fecundity, less focus, less robust mental health, less stable relationships, and lower levels of public happiness in the lives of my atheist, agnostic, and post-Christian friends. This is not an indictment against them; rather, it’s an observation that I feel buttresses my faith IN my faith as a practical instrument for success in this life. That this faith promises good things in the eternities is just icing on the cake, and I would not subscribe to it if my experiences with it were based solely on hopes of future glories. (In fact, I feel alienated from much of the afterlife-focused religiosity that pervades most of Christianity.) Anyway, I appreciate your perspective.

    • Hi Alex,

      Thanks for your response. One of the ways I think differently about the idea of faith now is that everyone’s belief is malleable. A simple (on the surface) way to solve issues such as these would be to suggest that anyone who lost faith, quit religion, etc., either didn’t really have faith to begin with, or their faith isn’t of the same mettle. I will say that never in my wildest imagination would I have have envisioned life outside of religion. I didn’t think it possible for me. That’s why part of what Cutting mentioned interested me. And yet now I can say it is not the foundation for my moral code (though much of the content overlaps).

      My beliefs were never really enforced intellectually either; perhaps if they had been, things would be different. Thus, like you, my belief was experiential. I came to realize that my personal experience did little to prove the existence of anything beyond myself and that it was largely conditioned by my particular environment. Insofar as happiness goes, I always wondered how, if God was the ultimate source of my happiness, how it could be that others could be happy without God. What I had to conclude was that their happiness was qualitatively different, not as good or real as mine. It may very well be that within your social circles, those non-believing folks are not as happy as believing ones. For me, that process was a rationalization to justify the superiority of my own position. I know plenty of miserable religious folks as well. It does bring up the interesting question of whether the ultimate goal of religion is to bring happiness. I think most would argue that its not, but I wish it was, because then all people would have a lot more common ground to work from and it would line up with the way we actually seem to judge our existence.

      I appreciate your sentiments on future glories and wonder if that would be true for many Christians. In the end, I feel like a religious worldview would still work for me in many ways, but primarily because I’m privileged enough, comparatively speaking, to choose from any number of belief systems if I wanted to. The main difference for me now is that I see how many religion doesn’t work for, who wonder why they are not happy if they are believers, as well as the negative impact upon those deemed outside that system of belief.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      • This is a very interesting topic, and I’d love to talk with you in greater detail. I have a simple view on the matter: I believe a faith’s truthfulness and usefulness rest on functional considerations–what real-world benefits do adherents (or adherents’ loved ones) stand to gain from participation in the faith. By this measure, I believe that various faiths can be graded in different ways. It is untrue that each faith is seeking the same outcome or doing so in the same manner.

        My two favorite faiths are my own (I’m biased) and Sikhism. They have a lot in common and they approach the world in similar ways. Adherents of my faith are more likely to obtain higher education than many Christian groups and, importantly, more likely to remain faithful after obtaining higher education. They are also uniquely able to have larger families without a concomitant lowering in quality of education among the children. They do so with a greater commitment to fidelity in marriage, greater emphasis on larger families, and with a stronger community support network, one that is literally international.

        The question, however, is not whether there are real-world advantages to following the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; rather, it is whether doing so requires LDS faithful to accept a load of bull as a prerequisite to fellowship. There is no easy answer here. I believe many things that seem ridiculous about the origins of Christianity and the Mormon branch thereof are not ridiculous, but I base such belief on personal spiritual experiences and shared family experiences.

        It would be unfair (if not unreasonable) for me to expect anyone else to accept what I accept uncritically. But whether or not you (or anyone else) now accepts the miraculous claims of my faith (or other successful faiths), there are definitely tangible benefits to being an adherent that are not shared by those outside of my faith (and others, I imagine). Here’s a link that might interest you:

        And here’s a book, one that I love, which was written by a non-Mormon scholar who explores the functional aspects of my faith:

        I like your blog. I would like to offer a seasoned word of caution to you as you work out your beliefs: hold to your marriage like it’s the only thing in this world that matters. If I’m right, and there is a tangible adversary that seeks to destroy long-term happiness by destroying families, then you have entered into a phase of life in which this adversary is likely to go after your marriage. If I’m wrong and none of this matters (i.e. we’re accidents of evolution doomed to extinction before or concurrent with the sun’s death), then you’ll still enjoy many real-world benefits that are solely the domain of married couples who’ve stuck it out through thick and thin. (I hope you don’t take offense at this advice. You may, of course, dismiss it as the ramblings of a family-obsessed Mormon.)

        • No offense taken at all. I appreciate your comments. I agree with you that religions are not all pursuing the same thing. However, it would be hard to prove that the social benefits you derive from your faith are directly tied to a supernatural other and not the social organization that uses God as an universal to organize around. I would argue with the LDS tradition, as with Christianity, this had much to do with the separation that occurred due to holding non-normative beliefs and the consequent need to band together to survive. But what about different locations of the world, third-world locations where “believers” don’t derive the same educational, ecological, and financial benefits that we in the first world do? If we don’t want to say that God doesn’t like them as much, or that they are somehow doing it wrong, couldn’t we make the case that it is not belief in the supernatural, but other socio-economic factors that played a larger role in the functionality of their (and your) faith? Belief in the divine may make me and them feel better in the midst of their suffering; unfortunately it also lessens the motivation and relinquishes the power to change it. We could also go in and improve their condition as a result of their belief, as much Christian missionary work is built on, but I could certainly do that outside of faith as well with the same result.

          In short, I’m wary of using social data to prove the divine. I know that is not what you are suggesting, but that is the logical step for many. But it doesn’t work on a global level. Interestingly enough, when things go bad for believers in the Western world, most tend to let God off the hook, although he gets credit for the good stuff.

          I began to read Stark years ago while working on my M.A. His Rise of Christianity was fairly controversial at the time, but I appreciated his look at the growth of faith based on social networks rather than supernatural principles. His rational choice model has come under much criticism, though, for assuming that people make decisions by laying out all the facts without bias and then choosing the best scenario for themselves. In fact, none of us operates that way, and it takes an significantly greater amount of evidence to disprove what we already hold true than it does to confirm it. That said, I’ve found his work valuable.

          Let’s do talk sometime. I’d like to catch up. Perhaps over the weekend…

          • You’re quite right: I don’t believe you can prove the divine with positive social benefits. Goodness knows that many a religious man and woman has been cut down in the prime of life or otherwise tormented because the faith he or she hold. And we can both agree that accepting death is not a net positive on the social benefits scale 🙂 I’d love to catch up. I’ll be around on Friday and this weekend.

Leave a Reply